The typical way for writers to tell a story is for them to have well developed primary characters. It goes without saying that many of us can recall our favorite primary characters without batting an eye. Amongst the most famous examples include Sherlock Holmes, Harry Potter, and Tom Sawyer. These characters have survived the test of time and are often associated with some of the most impressive and influential stories of all time. Many stories, including Hamlet, however use minor characters in order to tell important parts of the story that may affect the main character, but the main character may not be a part of it. Many famous minor characters that were important to the overall story include Dr. Watson from Sherlock Holmes often being a more sophisticated compliment to Holmes' character, Severus Snape from the Harry Potter series, serving as an antagonistic force in Harry's life that often coerces him into certain action, and Huckleberry Finn from The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, often aiding Tom Sawyer in his outings and misadventures. Some of these minor characters play such powerful roles, their own creators have made stories that put them in the role of main characters. The characters Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, Fortinbras, and the gravedigger all play important roles in Hamlet, even though they don’t have many appearances in the play and are the perfect examples of minor characters who play an important role in the plot of a literary work.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, the first set of characters, play an incredibly important part in Hamlet, as they are involved in the development of a theme that is incredibly important to the character of Hamlet, as well as the plot as the actions of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern continue to increase Hamlet's feeling of being trapped in Denmark and a prisoner of his own internal struggles. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and major components to the play because of the job of escorting Hamlet to England they are given by King Claudius. Because Claudius hands both Rosencrantz and Guildenstern a letter to hand to the King of England ordering him to kill Hamlet once he arrives in England. However, Hamlet soon discovers the letters and finally realizes that he must act in order to escape a feeling of entrapment and experience a freedom from moral obligation he has not felt since the ghost of his father revealed to him the true nature of his death and assigned Hamlet the task of seeking vengeance. Hamlet ultimately decides to swap the orders of his execution with a letter commanding the execution of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Hamlet vocalizes the his feelings of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as he reveals to Horatio that "They are not near my conscience. Their defeat / Does by their own insinuation grow." (Act V.i.140) . This conversation Hamlet has with Horatio shows how important the characters of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern truly were, and that if they had prevented Hamlet from stealing the letters or kept Hamlet from boarding the pirate ship, the play would have turned out much differently. On top of this, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are responsible, indirectly, for much of Hamlet’s erratic behavior and the increased fear of what Hamlet may do next amongst the other minor and major characters as a result of him feeling trapped. In fact, Hamlet reveals to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern that he feels that "Denmark's a prison." (Act II.ii.52) This is primarily due to Claudius and Gertrude's prodding of Hamlet to try to find out what is bothering him. Claudius and Gertrude ask Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to accompany Hamlet, with Claudius stating "...I beseech you instantly to visit / My too much changed son." (Act II.ii.44) This incessant prodding into his life ultimately causes Hamlet to reach a boiling point and causes him to reveal to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern that he actually knows the true nature of their visit, stating "...You were sent for, and there is a kind of confession in your looks which your modesties have not craft enough to color. I know the good king and queen have sent for you." (Act II.ii.43) Because these actions account for the shifts in Hamlet’s personality, primarily Hamlet's development of a feeling of entrapment, thus eventually leading up to Hamlet sending both of them to their death, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern play a far more important role in Hamlet than is often awarded to them.
Fortinbras also plays an important role in Hamlet, as he serves as a foil character to that of Hamlet. For the duration of the play, Hamlet is slow to act and often undergoes internal struggles before he can come to a decision. One example of Hamlet's indecisiveness comes when he contemplates killing Claudius in the castle chapel while Claudius is praying and more than likely repenting for his actions. As he draws his sword and moves in to execute Claudius, Hamlet realizes that it is an inappropriate time to conduct such an act arguing that " A vaillain kills my father, and for that, / I, his sole son, do this same villain send / To heaven." (Act III.iii.89). In contrast, Hamlet soon learns from the Captain of Fortinbras' army that Fortinbras is willing to send an army in to combat the Polish for a sliver of land "That hath in it no profit but the name." (Act IV.iv.107). This causes Hamlet to contemplate how slow he has been to act, and to compare himself to Fortinbras. Hamlet admits that Fortinbras is a man of courage and valor, no matter if the cause is small or large, qualities that Hamlet seems to lack. He states that "Why yet I live to say "This thing's to do," / Sith I have cause, and will, and strength, and means / To do't. Examples gross as earth exhort me: / Witness this army of such mass and charge, / Led by a delicate and tender prince, / Whose spirit with divine ambition puffed / Makes mouths at the invisible event, / Exposing what is mortal and unsure / To all that fortune, death, and danger dare, / Even for an eggshell. Rightly to be great / Is not to stire without great argument, / But greatly to find quarrel in a straw / When honor's at stake." (Act IV.iv.108) Hamlet thus acknowledges these qualities in Fortinbras and ultimately awards him the throne of Denmark. During his last few breaths, Hamlet states to Horatio that "...I do prophesy th' election lights / On Fortinbras;" (Act V.ii.152), in reference to the formality of 'electing' the next King of Denmark, but ultimately passing the position on to Fortinbras. It is the qualities of bravery, honor, and quick decision making, the antithesis of Hamlet, that provide Fortinbras his role as a foil character to that of Hamlet.
The gravedigger plays an often overlooked aspect of Hamlet. Many regard Hamlet as one of the greatest tragedies ever written, but many do not recognize the comedic relief the gravedigger supplies in his brief appearance. During his appearance in the play, his character relies primarily on plays on words as well as literal interpretations of dialogue to add humorous elements to a somber play. One example includes an exchange between the gravedigger and his companion in which he asks the gravedigger of the cause of death of the woman, Ophelia, he is preparing the grave for, to which the gravedigger describes the cause of death as ”se offendendo" (Act V.i.127), implying suicide due to "self offense," in reference to the Latin phrase "se defendendo", literally meaning "self defense," two phrases with vastly different meanings, but with humorous undertones in the right context. Another instance of the gravediggers' comedic nature is his literal interpretation of Hamlet's dialogue and questions. This is primarily exhibited when Hamlet asks if the grave belongs to a man ("For no man, sir." (Act V.i.131)) or a woman ("For none, either." (Act V.i.131)). The gravedigger insists that a cadaver is, in essence, no longer human, and cannot be subjected to gender labels. It is treated like a sexless object that simply exists, providing for a dark sense of comedic relief. Hamlet confirms how literal and comedic that gravedigger is by proclaiming "How absolute the knave is! We must speak by the card, or equivocation will undo us." (Act V.i.131). Ultimately, the gravedigger plays an extremely important role in Hamlet, serving as comic relief in a widely regarded tragic and somber play.
In the end, certain qualities, traits, and actions of characters will, minor or major, will serve to better enhance or emphasize the reading experience a reader may have of specific works. In the case of Hamlet, we can credit many of these very things to the characters of Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, Fortinbras, and the gravedigger. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are two very well written characters that serve to emphasize a feeling of entrapment experienced by Hamlet throughout the play, leading him to the few and far between 'actions' he takes in plotting to kill his Uncle. Fortinbras winds up playing the role of a foil character, highlighting various traits that Hamlet does not possess that are almost required to carry out the task of killing his Uncle, such as bravery, courage, and ambition. Finally, the gravediggers, being written in the story as knaves, serve as the much needed comic relief in a play that is generally agreed upon through popular consensus as one of the most somber and macabre plays ever written. Characters like these appear not only in Hamlet, but as well as many other works of literature. They also can be conceptualized in the real world as begin to realize that certain 'minor characters' in our life may very well play a much more important role than we realize.